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Why Do People Have Intrusive Thoughts?


Has an unsettling thought or a disturbing image ever popped into your head, seemingly from out of nowhere? If you answered yes, you are one of six million Americans who have experienced intrusive thoughts.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted ideas and images that come to mind unexpectedly. These thoughts can be directed towards yourself, your loved ones or people who just happen to be nearby at the moment.

Some common examples include:

  • A parent thinking about hurting their baby or child.
  • A fleeting urge to jump when standing on a bridge or rooftop of a tall building (a phenomenon also known as “the call of the void” or “the high place phenomenon”).
  • Thoughts of running your car off the road or swerving into oncoming traffic.
  • Thoughts about doing something embarrassing; for example, shouting obscenities or doing something inappropriate in public.

Are Intrusive Thoughts Harmful?

“The short answer is no,” says Robert Chester, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with University Hospitals Department of Psychiatry. “Although intrusive thoughts can be unsettling, they are not always a sign of mental illness or an indication that you have a hidden desire to follow through with the disturbing or strange thought that arose in your mind.”

What’s more, multiple studies have shown that people who have intrusive thoughts are not more likely to act on them.

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

Stress is the most common trigger for intrusive thoughts. But even people with normal or low stress levels can experience the occasional intrusive thought. Most intrusive thoughts fall into one of the following categories, which can feel understandably disturbing:

  • A phobia or deep-seated fear
  • Embarrassing or shameful
  • Immoral or against your values
  • Violent or sexual in nature

So, what prompts a healthy brain to produce ideas that are disturbing – or even at odds with – who you are? Some researchers believe intrusive thoughts are a type of misinterpreted warning signal, a sort of brain hiccup.

“Intrusive thoughts may serve to protect us from our deepest fears or potential dangers,” says Dr. Chester. “For example, the sudden urge to step off a bridge causes you to step back. Similarly, the mother who has an intrusive thought about hurting her baby nearly always reacts with feelings of horror because her baby’s well-being is all that matters. Ultimately, intrusive thoughts remind us of the things we value the most in our lives.”

How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Here are some tips to help manage intrusive thoughts:

  • Identify and recognize the intrusive thought. A thought may be intrusive if:
    • It’s very different from your usual thoughts.
    • It’s disturbing and bothersome to you, and you want to rid your mind of it.
    • The thought feels difficult to control – intrusive thoughts are typically repetitive and often get “stuck in your head.”
  • Don’t fight it. When you have an intrusive thought, try to accept it. As unsettling as they may feel, intrusive thoughts usually go away if you accept them without focusing on them or trying to push them away.
  • Don’t judge yourself. Remind yourself that having this type of unusual or alarming thought does not mean that something is wrong with you. Thoughts are not the same as behavior.

When to Seek Help

You should seek the help of a mental health professional if your intrusive thoughts are disruptive to your daily life, especially if they interfere with your ability to work or to do things you enjoy. A therapist can help determine if intrusive thoughts are a symptom of a mental health condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Many people learn to manage intrusive thoughts with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which helps patients change thought patterns. In addition, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and certain other antidepressant medications can be effective in managing intrusive thoughts.

“Psychologists are here to help, not judge,” adds Dr. Chester.  “Please do not be ashamed to share your intrusive thoughts with us. We’ve heard it all.”

Related Links

Signs and symptoms of mental illness should not be ignored. University Hospitals has a wide network of primary care physicians and behavioral health professionals at convenient locations across the region who can diagnose and treat all types of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.